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As part of the Palace Museum’s 2019 “Celebrating the Spring Festival in the Forbidden City” exhibition and museum-wide décor, the Museum’s researchers and designers reconstructed Qing-dynasty (1644–1911) heavenly lanterns (tian deng) and longevity lanterns (wanshou deng) after investigating archives and items in the collection. The historic works were erected in pairs atop and beside the balustraded terrace in front of the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqing gong) in an unprecedented festive display enjoyed by millions of visitors.
Since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China of 2012, the country has made historic reforms in cultural development, progress in the promotion of China’s outstanding traditional culture, improvements in public cultural services, and developments in cultural enterprises and industries. As manifestations of China’s cultural confidence, these indicators coincide with the advancement of China’s soft power and the growing influence of Chinese culture. The results of this cultural development directly benefit the general public. The Palace Museum has followed the directive of the Party’s Central Committee regarding culture and cultural artifacts to delineate and construct the “Palace Museum Dream” by “passing on the magnificent Forbidden City to the next 600 years.” Through years of diligence and exploration, the Museum is presenting a safer, more congenial, and more open face to the world while striving for the goal of becoming a world-class museum.
The Party’s report from the 19th National Congress of 2017 noted it’s solemn promise to usher the poor and the poverty-stricken areas in which they live into the moderate prosperity of the entire country and to bring into motion the strength of all Party members, the entire nation, and the whole society in the effort to uphold the conscientious alleviation and eradication of poverty. In recent years, the Palace Museum has continuously made progress in the areas of public services, exhibitions, and cultural innovation. Meanwhile, the Museum’s enterprise of cultural heritage protection has received the support of many organizations and individuals through generous donations. In order to support the nation’s work of alleviating poverty and to draw public attention, the Museum has undertaken an endeavor to use its cultural innovation to support poverty-stricken areas through an auction of the reconstructed heavenly lanterns and longevity lanterns of this year’s Spring Festival exhibition.
All of the donations from the auction will be used to support educational and cultural enterprises in poverty-stricken areas. The reconstruction and erection of the lanterns were funded by the Palace Museum’s commercial subsidiary Beijing Palace Museum Cultural Communications Corporation, Ltd., which donated the lanterns to the Forbidden City Cultural Heritage Conservation Foundation in order to successfully organize the charitable auction.
The Forbidden City Cultural Heritage Conservation Foundation was initiated as a non-IPO foundation in October 2010 by the Palace Museum administration with the participation of a group of entrepreneurs with the primary mission of preserving the Museum’s collection and architecture, supporting the Museum through academic research and public services, and developing the Museum’s domestic and international influence. In 2017, the People’s Government of Beijing recognized the foundation as a charitable organization.
Reconstructing the Heavenly Lanterns and Longevity Lanterns
After the establishment of the new dynasty in the Forbidden City in 1644, the Qing court continued to use the imperial system developed by the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), which included specific ways of celebrating the Spring Festival. One of the decorative aspects of the festivities was the placement of specially designed lanterns atop and beside the balustraded terrace in front of the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqing gong). The pair of heavenly lanterns (tian deng) flanked the terrace on its east and west sides, and the pair of longevity lanterns (wanshou deng) flanked the central axis atop the white stone terrace. In the 1789 (the fifty-fourth year of the Qianlong reign, 1736–1795), the court began decorating the Hall of Imperial Supremacy (Huangji dian) in the same fashion. History of the Palace (Guochao gongshi) records how the lanterns were erected each year on the twenty-fourth day of the twelfth lunar month. The heavenly lanterns were dismantled on the third of the second month while the longevity lanterns remained in place merely until the eighteenth of the first month. Involving over 8,000 man-days, the erection of the large decorative posts with the lanterns was one of the most grandiose events during the annual festivities of the early to mid-Qing period. Due to the invasion of Western forces, the Daoguang Emperor (r. 1821–1850) issued an order in 1840 (the twentieth year of his reign) to discontinue the lantern installation and display. Since that time, the plinths in the palatial courts have remained unused.
The splendid longevity lanterns (wanshou deng) are primarily decorative in nature. The small pavilions atop the tall posts have had various designs throughout history. During the Qianlong reign, the pavilion was a polychrome lacquered hexagonal structure with layered eaves. Beginning in 1808 (the thirteenth year of Jiaqing, r. 1796–1820), the pavilion was designed as a gold-ornamented lacquered round pavilion with layered eaves and tented roof. The plinths in the palace courts are hexagonal in design and complement the design of the Qianlong reign. The lanterns are embellished with six rotating fans featuring images of immortals. The bottoms of the posts are stabilized with semicircular supports with cloud designs. The tops of the posts are ornamented with eight crouching dragons—each with a ring in its mouth for hanging tapestry banners with auspicious inscriptions. The dragons rest upon arched corbels with cloud designs. Each dragon is topped with one of the Eight Immortals. The sixteen tapestries hung from atop the lantern are organized in pairs with corresponding vertical inscriptions; each pair has a beautiful composition with auspicious significance. Each tapesty have matching melon-shaped bronze weights to prevent excessive movement caused by the wind. Moreover, the lantern posts are supported by large diagonal supports, and bronze counterweights.
The reconstructions of the heavenly lanterns and longevity lanterns were made possible by the Museum’s abundant collection and diligent research conducted by the Museum’s specialists. Formally proposed in March 2018, the lantern display added an indispensable effect to the Spring Festival décor and thematic exhibition. This historic display was not, however, achieved without difficulty. The lanterns had long been disused, and many of the associated objects had long vanished without a trace. After tireless research, the Museum’s personnel were able to locate information in the archives about the lanterns and recover prototypes used in their early constructions; even original posts were found in the storehouses. As a result of these monumental efforts, the reconstruction of the lanterns is now recognized as the greatest achievement of this year’s Spring Festival cultural innovations.
Part of the lanterns were crafted with forged copper craftsmanship, which is a traditional Chinese artform used in copper relief. Employing an array of techniques associated with this craft, artisans are able to apply complex designs upon metal surfaces. The dragons on the lanterns were accomplished by the craftsmen meticulously hammering the design into the metal. Researchers and artisans paid great attention to every detail as they sought to produce the best possible reconstruction of the lanterns.
On January 8, 2019, the exhibition “Celebrating the Spring Festival in the Forbidden City” opened to visitors. This exhibition involved a range of collection pieces on view in the Tower Galleries atop the Meridian Gate (Wu men) and festive décor throughout the palatial courtyards. Other interactive features and displays were located throughout the Museum. Poetic couplets and images of door gods displayed on gates and doors and small lanterns hung throughout the colonnades returned the palace to an historical atmosphere, but the heavenly lanterns and longevity lanterns drew the most attention.
Translated and edited by Adam J. Ensign and Zhuang Ying